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Cichlid Farming in Belize
by Rusty Wessel

In 1990, during a collecting trip to Central America, I was visiting with my long friend and former neighbor of 20 years, T.J. Delahanty. T.J. worked for the Peace Corps and lived in the Central American coastal town of Belize City, Belize. His home was always open to me and I used it often. During that first trip to Belize, I was told on numerous occasions that a fish farmer by the name of Thom Grimshaw was operating a tropical fish farm in the central part of the country. They told me he had beautiful blue and yellow fish. I assumed this person was a salt water collector stealing the beautiful blue damsels and yellow tangs from the blue waters of the Caribbean that border the country of Belize and ultimately sentencing them to death in some new hobbyist's saltwater tank back in the States.

Finally and with great difficulty I was able to meet this fish farmer in Belize City. Amazingly, he was not stripping the reefs of the Caribbean, but raising and breeding the beautiful blue and yellow cichlids from the Rift Lakes of Africa as well as the native cichlids of Belize.

Thom's farm (Black Orchid Ornamentals LTD) is located near Dangriga approximately a two and a half hour drive on mostly dirt roads south of Belize City. The farm consists of 72 medium sized dirt ponds, three large reservoirs, one large catch basin, a dozen concrete vats and a covered hatchery complex with over 40 glass aquariums. The entire farm is operated via a gravity fed reservoir which is kept full by a diesel operated water pump pulling fresh clear water from the Mullins River which borders his property.

The pH of the water is approximately 6.5 and is slightly soft. The catch basin is strategically placed in the lowest area of the farm. This prevents any escape of non-native fishes into the local streams. In addition, the catch basin is stocked with predatory guapote cichlids. Thus the guapotes instantly attack and devour any colorful escapees.

The original brood stock, Dangriga which consisted of primarily African cichlids such as Aulonocara species, Pseudotropheus, Melanochromis and "Haplochromis" species, was sent to Belize from Laif DeMason of Old World Exotic Fish. After four years of operation, Thom decided to diversify in 1991 and began breeding other fishes of the cichlid family as well as a few non-cichlid species.

The non-cichlid fish include the flashy and common rosy barbs, gold spot and bristlenose plecos, several varieties of Australian rainbows, Synodontis species including S. multipunctatus, bumblebee gobies and the large Florida blue lobster. Most of the non-cichlids are complementary fishes which coexist in the same dirt pond with a non-aggressive cichlids.

The new cichlids include the exceptional albino red zebra developed by Ric Biro of Florida Exotic Fish Sales, Pseudotropheus saulosi, Pseudotropheus sp. "solid orange", Tropheus moorii yellow band, Pseudotropheus sp. "gold breast zebra", Pseudotropheus kingsleyi as well as many others.

Although it would appear the water conditions on the farm are more conducive to raising South American cichlids, the African rift lake cichlids do very well in the lower pH ranges (approximately 6.5) and I have seen brooding Tropheus duboisi in dirt ponds in the largest reservoir. To my knowledge farmers in Florida have not yet mastered the art of breeding Tropheus in ponds.

The South American cichlids being bred on the farm include the common angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), the common oscar (Astronotus ocellatus), green severums (Heros severus), discus (Symphysodon aequifasciata), rams (Microgeophagus ramirezi) and several Geophagus species. The Geophagus species are doing extremely well in the nutrient rich ponds. In almost every pond that young Geophagus have been introduced, the net result was an overpopulation of the species. Note the larger number of fry in the mouth of the brooding Geophagus proximus, often sold in the U.S as G. surinamensis, in the photo. The discus have bred in outdoor concrete vats with the parents tending the fry. To my knowledge no special foods or attention was given to the discus. The parents spawned and raised the fry on the their own.

There are many advantages of operating a fish farm in the tropics, such as cheap labor, perennial warm weather, a relatively unrestricted supply of water and a free hand in the use of drugs for disease prevention in fishes. However, there are disadvantages also. Bird predation in Central America is a constant and steady problem and transportation is slow and expensive. However, when compared to the problems the Florida fish farmers experience every day, raising fish in the tropics makes sense to me!
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